Remembering a English basketball legend

The England basketball scene last night paid its final respects to well-respected player and coach Clarence Wiggins, a stalwart of the basketball set-up in Derbyshire. He passed away just before the turn of the year and while the second tier of British basketball does not get much media attention, Wiggins’ story and personality alone is something that cannot be ignored.

TalkBasket editor and voluntary press officer of National League club Worthing Thunder, John Hobbs recalls the events of January just gone, a month that the Derbyshire basketball fraternity will never forget.

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It was a cold Saturday night on January 10, 2015 in Alvaston, a suburb of Derby in the East Midlands of England and at Noel Baker school, a National League basketball match between Derby Trailblazers and Worthing Thunder is minutes away from tipping off when both teams respectfully stand at their respective free throw lines, and a male dressed in a light brown jumper walks up, visibly shaken.

“This is going to be really hard so please bare with me here,” he says over the microphone. The small crowd that packed into the gym at Noel Baker with notably long faces, some with tears streaming down as they listen intently to the male. The Derby and Worthing players all have their heads down, out of respect.

The male on the microphone at center court is Derby Trailblazers chairman Charlie Wright, and the man at the heart of the emotion and tears is Clarence Wiggins, a North Carolina native, a legend of the basketball scene in Derby for 31 years and well-respected PE teacher at Noel Baker, who passed away on December 29 at the age of 58.

With the Christmas break in the UK halting all basketball activity until the New Year, it was nearly two weeks before the Trailblazers, a club that Wiggins led to National League titles in Division 3, Division 2 and Division 1 were able to reflect and honour a man who brought happiness to everyone that he met.

“He was a terrific player in his day and he subsequently channeled his love for the game into coaching other people,” said Wright. “I think we can safely say that no single person has played a more significant role in the development of basketball in the city of Derby.”

Indeed he was right. Wiggins arrived in Derby back in 1983 to play basketball for nothing more than €66-a-week and the promise of free bus travel. He and Dave Smith were the first professional overseas players to be recruited by the club, then named Team Discounter Derby, for their first season at National League level.

In Britain, in this day and age, most overseas players, mainly Americans play their season and look for pastures new in other countries where basketball is better appreciated. For Wiggins, that one season began a 31-year love affair with basketball development and with the city of Derby.

As a player, 6’5” Wiggins settled in and became an instant success, both on and off the court – and after a year away – became player-coach for Derby’s second season in what was later called the British Basketball League.

Then in 1987, Wiggins had landed a job as a Physical Education teacher at Noel Baker School and in an instant, the students were taken by Clarence’s enthusiasm to the job and his positive attitude.

“He didn’t care that there were people out there adoring his name on a Saturday night at Moorways,” said Steve Astle, an ex-pupil of Wiggins at Noel Baker. “He just wanted us to work hard and to believe in our ability to get better. He made you feel so special and he made you feel that you were the only one he had that relationship with, but now you log onto Facebook and find out there were several thousand that he had that kind of relationship with; it’s quite phenomenal.”

And throughout his time at Noel Baker, the students all paid attention, eyes glued to the front and ears taking in everything that Wiggins said. And even though you were schooled on healthy living as well as physical exercise, Wiggins had a sweet tooth. Like all teenagers do.

“Clarence kept the department well stocked in Yorkie’s and Oreo’s, a thank you for tournaments we may have helped him with, an extra-curricular club or sometimes for no reason at all,” said an employee of the Noel Baker PE department.

“The real winner was his homemade lemonade and Clarence always knew when we needed it. Whether it be on a hot summer’s day or just after a long one, Clarence would pull his carrier bag out with bottles of the stuff and bring a smile to all our faces.”

As a coach, Wiggins kept it simple, and because of that, he led Derby Trailblazers to numerous successes. His last season as playcaller in 2010 was to be his most memorable. He led his side to the EBL Division 1 title and was named Coach of the Year. Current Trailblazers head coach Matt Shaw was a member of that championship winning team and learned his trade from the great man himself.

“The main thing Clarence was able to do is make his players play hard for him, every single game,” Shaw said. “It sounds simple but it’s a trait not all coaches have. As soon as guys stepped on the court they were playing for Wig and didn’t want to let him down.”

Last weekend, the Trailblazers had a rare rest day. At this moment, they sit on top of the National Basketball League, Division 1 standings, where Wiggins left them when he stepped down as head coach. The entire basketball community of Derby swarmed upon Noel Baker to remember the man that brought joy and happiness to so many people.

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“I have no words to convey my gratitude for all the messages of condolence, support, love and laughter, from Clarence’s friends, colleagues, students, players and admirers,” Clarence’s wife CJ wrote in a heartfelt message in the January 10 match programme.

“Every tribute brought a fresh wave of tears, but they also brought a measure of consolation and of pride; I feel privileged to have shared the life and love of an outstanding human being who touched the lives of so many people – my husband, my friend, my ‘true gentleman’.”

Wiggins will forever and always be known as a hero, a champion, a legend and a friend.

Thank you, Clarence for being who you were and may you rest in peace.

To learn more about Clarence Wiggins and just what he meant to people around Derbyshire, give the memorial Facebook page a like.